The Polyvalence of ἀφίημι and the Two Cognitive Frames of Forgiveness in the Synoptic GospelsNovum Testamentum


Rikard Roitto
Linguistics and Language / History / Language and Linguistics / Literature and Literary Theory / Religious studies


Max born medal and prize

The Institute of Physics

Rape in marriage

Lee H. Bowker, o̊Dean of the Graduate School and Research


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Novum Testamentum 57 (�015) 136-158

The Polyvalence of ἀφίημι and the Two Cognitive

Frames of Forgiveness in the Synoptic Gospels

Rikard Roitto



Depending on whether God or a human is the forgiving agent in the Synoptic Gospels (and beyond), the verb valence of ἀφίημι, “forgive,” differs in several ways. The present article argues that the differences are reflections in linguistic conventions of the cognition that only God can remove the substance of sin, while both God and humans can remit the moral debt of sin. Construction grammar, a linguistic theory which assumes that syntax and semantics are inseparable, is used in the analysis. Theological implications are discussed.

Keywords forgive – verb valence – construction grammar – cognition of forgiveness 1 Introduction

When ἀφίημι is used with the meaning “forgive” in the Synoptic Gospels, the verb takes different accompanying arguments1 depending on whether the one 1 For a linguistic statement to be complete, the predicate (a verb) needs to be accompanied by the correct number of arguments (also called complements). Each argument has semantic role (also called thematic role or case role) in relation to the predicate. For instance “build” needs two arguments, 1) an agent (who builds) and, 2) a patient (that is built); e.g. “Lisa [agent] builds [predicate] a house [patient].” See e.g. B. Aarts, English Syntax and

Argumentation (2nd ed.; Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001) 91-97. In general, I have used the linguistic terms preferred in Mirjam Fried and Jan-Ola Östman’s introduction to construction grammar, M. Fried and J.-O. Östman, “Construction Grammar: A Thumbnail Sketch,” in Construction 137The Polyvalence of ἀφίημι and the Two Cognitive Frames

Novum Testamentum 57 (2015) 136-158 who forgives is God or a human being. I argue that this hitherto overlooked phenomenon can be explained if we assume that two different cognitive frames of forgiveness (imaginations of what forgiveness is) are operative in the Synoptic Gospels, one where sin is a substance that is removed through forgiveness and one where sin is a debt that is remitted through forgiveness.

Within each imagination, a distinct usage of ἀφίημι with its own verb valence2 is evoked. Whereas God can be the forgiving agent in both cognitive frames, humans can only be the agent in the latter, which explains why some apparent syntactic possibilities do not turn up when a human being is the forgiving agent. Thus, the linguistic analysis has several theological implications. 2 Statistics on the Valence of ἀφίημι

In BDAG, the translation of ἀφίημι as “forgive” is placed under section 2, “to release from legal or moral obligation or consequence.”3 That is, BDAG assumes that the event “forgive” in early Christian texts is always modelled on remission of debt—an assumption that this article doubts. From the information provided by BDAG, we may infer that ἀφίημι takes three arguments when it means “forgive”: 1. Agent: the forgiver (nominative case with the verb in the active voice) 2. Patient:4 the sin/wrong (accusative case with the verb in the active voice)

Grammar in a Cross-Language Perspective (ed. M. Fried & J.-O. Östman; Amsterdam: John

Benjamins, 2004) 11-86. 2 The valence of a verb is the expected number of arguments for the verb. 3 BDAG s.v. ἀφίημι 2. 4 We could also say that this argument has the semantic role theme, but I have chosen patient for the sake of simplicity. The semantic role patient is defined as “the ‘undergoer’ of an action” while theme is defined as the “the entity that is moved by the action,” according to for instance the textbook of Aarts, English Syntax, 95. However, scholars disagree on how and if these two semantic roles should be distinguished, see e.g. B.J. Blake, Case (2nd ed.; Cambridge:

Cambridge UP, 2001) 70-71; D. Dowty, “Thematic Proto-Roles and Argument Selection,”

Language 67 (1991) 547-619.  In New Testament scholarship working with semantic roles, S.S.M. Wong, A Classification of Semantic Case-Relations in the Pauline Epistles (New York: P. Lang, 1997) 244, suggests that this argument of ἀφίημι should be considered a patient. Paul L. Danove also suggests “patient” in Linguistics and Exegesis in the Gospel of Mark: Applications of a Case Frame Analysis 138 roitto

Novum Testamentum 57 (2015) 136-158 3. Beneficiary: the one for whom the <patient> is forgiven (dative case).

A typical example is ἀφῇ ἡμῖν τὰς ἁμαρτίας, “He [agent] forgives the sins [patient] for us [beneficiary]” (1 John 1:9). BDAG also notes that sometimes the patient and/or the beneficiary is missing, for example ἀφίενταί σου αἱ ἁμαρτίαι, “Your sins [patient] are forgiven” (Matt 9:2), or, ἀφήσω αὐτῷ; “Shall I forgive to him [beneficiary]?” (Matt 18:21).5 However, neither BDAG nor any other linguistic analysis that I have been able to find notices that the verb takes different combinations of arguments depending on whether God or a human being is the agent. Table 1 to 3 show statistics of how the valence of ἀφίημι varies.6 The first number in each cell of the tables is the count in the Synoptic Gospels and the second number the total for the whole New Testament and the Apostolic

Fathers. We see several interesting phenomena in the tables, which can be summarized in these five (somewhat overlapping) points: a) When God is the agent, there is considerable variation whether the beneficiary, the patient, or both, are mentioned, but when a human is the agent, the by far most frequent case is to mention only the beneficiary. b) Only when God is the agent, we have the combination where the patient is mentioned but not the beneficiary. c) Almost without exception, the patient is ἁμαρτία only when God is the agent.7 d) Almost without exception, the patient (usually ἁμαρτία) is only mentioned when God is the agent.8 e) Only when God is the agent, the verb takes passive form. (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic 2001) 160. However, in his later work, A Grammatical and